Hailing from Jenkins in Southeastern Kentucky, Roberta Webb worked as a psychiatric nursing supervisor, continued her nursing at the University of Virginia, and worked for a short time on the first atomic bomb as a minute technician. Now, living in Texas, she has embarked on a writing career with her debut novel The Dark and Bloody Ground (TurnKey Press, Texas, 2006), a historical saga of a Kentucky family through its five generations.
The story starts with Morgan Collier’s irresistible fascination with the wild highs of Kentucky. As he settles there with his family, a full-fledged adventure lived in the open ensues with all the richness of natural vitalism. Adaptation to the wild, action against enemies both natural and human, and the harmony of love and force all constitute the history of life lived in and with the wild. Morgan’s progeny is fostered ahead in his daughter Sarah giving birth to Amy, she in turn becoming the mother of Ben Cantrell and the grandmother of Ben’s son Thomas. Zooming in on characters across generations, the author skillfully pilots an omniscient voice.
Webb’s experience of history contributes immensely to the realism of her novel’s story: the Bessemer’s Process for purifying steel, the Yamaha Pianos of the Japanese, details of mining and construction, and the craft of winemaking make an imagery of high appeal to evocation. Kentucky is slowly unmasked as the ‘dark and bloody ground’ where a wild innocence sheltered its inhabitants as early as 1840 until the arrival of investment for mining and Levi Cantrell’s obsession with making money and until after the Second World War. With the advent of capital and people, Levi’s lust for wealth drags him into bootlegging, and murder while the town is ravaged by competitiveness, theft, and worthlessness of man. The care for one’s family falls servile before satiating the masses’ craving for moonshine. The cracks widen and the Cantrell family is torn between losing their blood to war and keeping their faith in Mother Nature. A plot of its kind!
To involve the reader head over heels, Webb hooks the reader up on the supernatural trait of Ben Cantrell and his son Thomas. Both have got cat eyes, and in the words of Levi Cantrell ‘…cats have nine lives.’ Webb’s symbolism certainly conveys the power of nature in human life. To side with the wild is to survive in the eternally fierce world no matter what form wildness assumes. And hence we find Thomas Cantrell breathing his life while his peers enter their graves. Crueler is the case of Wesley Adams who is on a curse by Lettie Mullins, whose son he killed, that haunts her mind as he fears for the lives of his own sons.
The Dark and Bloody Ground is tout in its plot. It outstrips tautology except in the reminders that the old mountain people still looked healthy and beautiful despite their age. A couple of chapters are overly descriptive, exceeding plot and character, and zooming in on labor employed to urbanize Kentucky. But most of the 24 chapters are beautifully written. And at the end of the book you cannot help asking, with a sigh, Sarah Collier’s question, ‘How could a place so beautiful witness so many tragedies?’